View of “Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium,” 2017, showing the installation Tropicália, 1966–67, sand, plants, birds, and poems by Roberta Camila Salgado, dimensions variable, at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Performance arguably persists only in the document, the remnant, the re-creation. Though the Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica, whose too-brief career spanned from the mid-1950s to the late ’70s, is not typically designated a performance artist, his work invites interactive responses from the “participator” (his preferred term for the viewer). At the Art Institute of Chicago, “Hélio Oiticica: To Organize Delirium”—which originated at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and opens at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York on July 14—purported to restage Oiticica’s participatory works. Yet the show’s invitations to activate certain pieces were in most cases insincere and conditional, as they contradict the museum’s fundamental mission of archival preservation—a mission that inevitably trumps artistic intent. 

The un-precious and socially contingent nature of Oiticica’s oeuvre poses a challenge to curators, as does the loss of over two thousand works in a 2009 fire at his brother’s home in Rio de Janeiro. An introductory wall text at the Art Institute acknowledged that certain objects in the show were reconstructions, but descriptions of individual works gave no indications as to their status. The concept of the “original” object may be unimportant here, as Oiticica built sculptures for participators to modulate themselves—like a 1960 installation, from his famous series of “Penetrables,” that comprises a configuration of moving panels painted a juicy orange—or to activate with their bodies, as with the capelike “Parangolés,” fabricated for the exhibition as both untouchable wall pieces and a rack of costumes that viewers could try on.

But the approach to re-creation was inconsistent. Eden (1969) is an immersive installation where visitors can traipse through bins containing hay and bright chunks of foam, listen to music on headphones in a makeshift tent, or dip their toes into shallow pools in sunken tarps. Oiticica intended the work to be a departure from what he had come to perceive as the somewhat hackneyed vision of equatorial life featured in his earlier installation Tropicália (1966–67), an environment consisting of sand, potted plants, and live parrots. Yet in Chicago the two installations were essentially presented as one. Barefoot visitors traversing from the white sands and tarp tents of Eden into the environs of Tropicália could not be expected to appreciate the difference. 

Other absurdities of the exhibition were at work here too; one could move from the conjoined installations to examine the warm pink interior of the kinetic sculpture B16 Box Bólide 12 (1964–65) nearby, only to be scolded by a guard for standing too close. In whiplashing the viewer between staged utopias and the conventional rules of museum behavior, the show exacerbated rather than challenged the frustrating arbitrariness with which certain ephemeral works are made available to visitor participation while others are withheld. 

There were additional moments that made one question the possibility of reanimating the intimate experiences that Oiticica sought to create. Wall texts stressed the importance of the Gay Liberation movement in New York during Oiticica’s stay in the ’70s without stating plainly that the artist was gay. Perhaps there are advantages to letting viewers come to this conclusion on their own. A casual observer could admire a slideshow in which a pouty youth models various “Parangolés,” while an initiated one could recognize the backdrop of the West Side Piers and surmise that Oiticica and his model likely connected at this notorious hub of sex between men. 

Neyrótika (1973) is a slideshow of pretty tricks Oiticica brought from the street to photograph in the “Nests” he had built in his West Village apartment. This home base–cum–art installation also served as the venue for his multipart “Cosmococas” series, in which he entertained friends with slide projections showing cocaine-dusted album covers and with refreshments of the titular substance. The effect was approximated in the show with CC6 Coke Head’s Soup (1973), where viewers could recline on a padded floor while the Rolling Stones song “Sister Morphine” blared from speakers mounted in the ceiling amid four projectors that saturated the room in the schmaltz-yellow hues of the band’s Goat’s Head Soup album cover. One could unwind—until the rebukes of the guards, directed at anyone who stepped so much as a foot away from the room in stockinged feet, demarcated where this paradise ended.